Prime Time [Encore Publication]: Why a prime lens is often better than a zoom

Most photographers make most of their images using a zoom lens.  Aside from smartphone cameras, which typically feature a fixed focal-length lens, nearly every camera today comes with a zoom lens attached.  Most point-and-shoot and compact cameras do not have interchangeable lenses, so the zoom lens that comes with the camera is the only choice, while most mirrorless and DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses.  That means these more advanced cameras offer the choice of using a broad range of different lenses, including both zoom and prime (fixed focal-length) lenses.  While many photographers own one or several prime lenses, from my observation the vast majority shoot nearly all of their images using one of their zoom lenses instead.  In today’s post, I make the case for using prime lenses in many, or even most, shooting situations.

This portrait of a Delhi girl outside India’s largest mosque is lovely and effective, but because I didn’t have time to change lenses and was forced to use my slower walkaround zoom lens, the depth-of-field is quite deep, making for a somewhat distracting background.  Buy this photo

Zoom lenses have one clear advantage over prime lenses: they offer a range of focal lengths, which helps the photographer compose the image without having to walk closer to or farther away from the subject.  But even here I would argue that in most cases it aids creativity to “zoom with the feet,” or walk around to compose the best shot.  Even when this isn’t possible, a high-resolution digital image can easily be cropped in post-processing to achieve the composition the photographer had in mind.

But prime lenses have many advantages over zoom lenses.  First, they are nearly always sharper and generally higher quality than zooms, because they don’t require extra internal glass elements to enable the zooming.  While zoom lenses have improved in optical quality over recent years, it remains the case that prime lenses offer a quality advantage.  Second, prime lenses are typically smaller and lighter than zooms.  This is a blessing especially to travel photographers.  Third, primes are less expensive than zooms of similar optical and build quality.  That means you can buy two or three different prime lenses for the price of one zoom lens covering a similar range of focal lengths.  And fourth, primes are usually faster (i.e., offer a wider maximum aperture size) than zooms.  This last point is a big advantage for many types of shooting, because a wide aperture (small F-number) lets in more light, allowing use of faster shutter speeds and lower ISO settings in low-light conditions.  This is a real boon for nighttime and astro-photography.  A wide aperture also results in shallow depth-of-field, which emphasizes the main subject by softening the focus of the background.  The best lenses offer a pleasing “bokeh”, or pleasant blurring of the out-of-focus elements of the image.  This effect makes for extremely effective portraits as well as wildlife images, but is also useful for other types of photography.


This portrait, made with my current favorite lens, an 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens, offers very sharp focus on the subject’s face and pleasing bokeh, or soft blurring of the out-of-focus background.  It would not have been possible to make this portrait using a zoom lens because the maximum aperture would be too small to achieve the soft background effect.  Buy this photo

I shoot a lot of performing arts events (dance, music, theater), which typically take place indoors where the light is very dim and frequently feature fast-moving action requiring a fast shutter speed.  Using a prime lens allows me to shoot at an action-freezing shutter speed without having to use extremely high ISO settings that introduce noise into the images.  And again, the pleasantly blurred backgrounds help set off the very sharp main subject for a striking overall effect.

I captured this image of a samba dancer at a dress rehearsal under very low-light conditions.  Using my 85mm f/1.8 prime portrait lens, I was able to freeze the motion using a fast shutter speed, keep the ISO at a reasonable level to avoid noise, and render a nice soft background.  Buy this photo

I would estimate that most enthusiast and professional photographers shoot about 80% of their images using zoom lenses.  My own usage pattern is the opposite, that is, I shoot about 80% of my images using prime lenses.  For some purposes, a zoom lens is still required, but it’s surprising how often we can achieve better results using a prime.  Prime lenses are smaller, lighter, less expensive, higher quality, and faster than zoom lenses.  I encourage you to dig out your prime lenses if you have a few, or borrow, rent, or buy one or two (remember, they are much less expensive than comparable zoom lenses) and try shooting with them exclusively, or at least much of the time, for a week or two.  Compare your images made with the primes vs. the ones made with zooms and come to your own conclusions.  If you’re like me, you’ll find that a prime lens is the right tool for most photographic jobs.

Here are my three favorite prime lenses, a “normal” lens, a medium telephoto or “portrait” lens, and a wide-angle lens:

If you pack only one prime lens, it most likely will be a “normal” lens, that is one with a focal length of about 50mm for a full-frame camera or about 35mm for a crop-sensor camera.  I carry the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens.  This is the one I use in very low-light situations or to get a really shallow depth-of-field.

I think my current favorite lens of all (including primes and zooms) is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh”, or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

A wide-angle prime lens can be useful for landscapes, architecture and interiors, and astro-photography, among other purposes.  I like the Nikon 24mm f/1.8.

What are your preferences regarding use of prime vs. zoom lenses, and why?  Please share your experiences in the comments box.

Want to read other posts about gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

 

Prime Time [Encore Publication]: Why a prime lens is often better than a zoom

Most photographers make most of their images using a zoom lens.  Aside from smartphone cameras, which typically feature a fixed focal-length lens, nearly every camera today comes with a zoom lens attached.  Most point-and-shoot and compact cameras do not have interchangeable lenses, so the zoom lens that comes with the camera is the only choice, while most mirrorless and DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses.  That means these more advanced cameras offer the choice of using a broad range of different lenses, including both zoom and prime (fixed focal-length) lenses.  While many photographers own one or several prime lenses, from my observation the vast majority shoot nearly all of their images using one of their zoom lenses instead.  In today’s post, I make the case for using prime lenses in many, or even most, shooting situations.

This portrait of a Delhi girl outside India’s largest mosque is lovely and effective, but because I didn’t have time to change lenses and was forced to use my slower walkaround zoom lens, the depth-of-field is quite deep, making for a somewhat distracting background.  Buy this photo

Zoom lenses have one clear advantage over prime lenses: they offer a range of focal lengths, which helps the photographer compose the image without having to walk closer to or farther away from the subject.  But even here I would argue that in most cases it aids creativity to “zoom with the feet,” or walk around to compose the best shot.  Even when this isn’t possible, a high-resolution digital image can easily be cropped in post-processing to achieve the composition the photographer had in mind.

But prime lenses have many advantages over zoom lenses.  First, they are nearly always sharper and generally higher quality than zooms, because they don’t require extra internal glass elements to enable the zooming.  While zoom lenses have improved in optical quality over recent years, it remains the case that prime lenses offer a quality advantage.  Second, prime lenses are typically smaller and lighter than zooms.  This is a blessing especially to travel photographers.  Third, primes are less expensive than zooms of similar optical and build quality.  That means you can buy two or three different prime lenses for the price of one zoom lens covering a similar range of focal lengths.  And fourth, primes are usually faster (i.e., offer a wider maximum aperture size) than zooms.  This last point is a big advantage for many types of shooting, because a wide aperture (small F-number) lets in more light, allowing use of faster shutter speeds and lower ISO settings in low-light conditions.  This is a real boon for nighttime and astro-photography.  A wide aperture also results in shallow depth-of-field, which emphasizes the main subject by softening the focus of the background.  The best lenses offer a pleasing “bokeh”, or pleasant blurring of the out-of-focus elements of the image.  This effect makes for extremely effective portraits as well as wildlife images, but is also useful for other types of photography.


This portrait, made with my current favorite lens, an 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens, offers very sharp focus on the subject’s face and pleasing bokeh, or soft blurring of the out-of-focus background.  It would not have been possible to make this portrait using a zoom lens because the maximum aperture would be too small to achieve the soft background effect.  Buy this photo

I shoot a lot of performing arts events (dance, music, theater), which typically take place indoors where the light is very dim and frequently feature fast-moving action requiring a fast shutter speed.  Using a prime lens allows me to shoot at an action-freezing shutter speed without having to use extremely high ISO settings that introduce noise into the images.  And again, the pleasantly blurred backgrounds help set off the very sharp main subject for a striking overall effect.

I captured this image of a samba dancer at a dress rehearsal under very low-light conditions.  Using my 85mm f/1.8 prime portrait lens, I was able to freeze the motion using a fast shutter speed, keep the ISO at a reasonable level to avoid noise, and render a nice soft background.  Buy this photo

I would estimate that most enthusiast and professional photographers shoot about 80% of their images using zoom lenses.  My own usage pattern is the opposite, that is, I shoot about 80% of my images using prime lenses.  For some purposes, a zoom lens is still required, but it’s surprising how often we can achieve better results using a prime.  Prime lenses are smaller, lighter, less expensive, higher quality, and faster than zoom lenses.  I encourage you to dig out your prime lenses if you have a few, or borrow, rent, or buy one or two (remember, they are much less expensive than comparable zoom lenses) and try shooting with them exclusively, or at least much of the time, for a week or two.  Compare your images made with the primes vs. the ones made with zooms and come to your own conclusions.  If you’re like me, you’ll find that a prime lens is the right tool for most photographic jobs.

Here are my three favorite prime lenses, a “normal” lens, a medium telephoto or “portrait” lens, and a wide-angle lens:

If you pack only one prime lens, it most likely will be a “normal” lens, that is one with a focal length of about 50mm for a full-frame camera or about 35mm for a crop-sensor camera.  I carry the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens.  This is the one I use in very low-light situations or to get a really shallow depth-of-field.

I think my current favorite lens of all (including primes and zooms) is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh”, or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

A wide-angle prime lens can be useful for landscapes, architecture and interiors, and astro-photography, among other purposes.  I like the Nikon 24mm f/1.8.

What are your preferences regarding use of prime vs. zoom lenses, and why?  Please share your experiences in the comments box.

Want to read other posts about gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

 

Decent Exposure [Encore Publication]: Mastering exposure is key to getting great images

Of all the primary elements a photographer controls–composition, focus, the moment the shutter is released, and of course the choice of the subject–none is more critical to making a great image than setting a proper exposure.  Some corrections to a poorly exposed image can be made in post-processing, and there are occasionally good artistic reasons to override the norms of exposure in order to evoke a certain mood in an image by making it darker or brighter than usual, but before we can effectively make these exceptional choices it is necessary to learn the basics of setting an appropriate exposure.

Let’s begin by defining exposure and the elements that comprise it.  Simply put, exposure refers to the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor and therefore how light or dark the resulting image will appear.  Four components together determine the exposure: 1) the brightness of the light reflecting off the subject and reaching the front of the lens, 2) the aperture setting on the lens (how wide or narrow is the opening of the lens), 3) the shutter speed setting (how long is the camera’s shutter open to allow light to strike the sensor), and 4) the sensitivity setting of the camera’s sensor.  We don’t always have control over the first component, but the other three are within our control using our camera’s settings.

Many photographers simply set their camera on Auto mode and let the camera’s built-in meter make its best guess as to how the image should be exposed.  That method can work well under certain conditions, but it is highly prone to errors.  For example, if your main subject is strongly backlit, the camera’s meter will expose for the average brightness in the scene and will underexpose the subject.  This is why so often we see underexposed photos of people standing outside in bright sunlight.

Although I compensated for the strong backlighting in this image of a Tibetan family enjoying a midday picnic, their faces are still quite shadowy, indicating a bit brighter exposure would have been better still.  Buy this photo

Fortunately, there are several easy methods to achieve a correct exposure even under challenging lighting conditions.  Here are a few that I use frequently:

  1. Set the camera’s metering mode to Spot Metering: By default most cameras’ metering systems use a sophisticated pattern-matching algorithm that measures how bright or dark each area of the image is and makes its best guess about a workable exposure based on similar scenes in the camera’s database.  Most cameras allow you to select a simpler metering mode called Spot Metering, that just measures the light at the central point in the image or another point that you select.  If you choose Spot Metering and select the measuring point to be right where your main subject is, you should get just the right exposure.
  2. Dial in some exposure compensation: Most cameras let you override the meter’s exposure setting by dialing in a compensation setting to lighten or darken the image.  If your subject is backlit, you will likely want to increase the exposure by one to two stops (each “stop” of additional exposure represents a doubling of the amount of light reaching the sensor).  The camera’s display should show something like “+1 EV” to alert you that you’ve dialed in 1 extra stop of exposure, and the number changes as you change the compensation setting.  Just be sure to set the exposure compensation back to zero when you’re done using it.
  3. Go fully manual: To gain complete control over your camera’s exposure settings, choose the meter’s Manual mode.  Then you can change all three exposure elements (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) until the image appears properly exposed when you review it on your camera’s display.
  4. Use flash to increase the lighting on your main subject: One good way to achieve proper exposure with a backlit subject is to increase lighting on the subject itself, so that there is no longer such a difference in brightness between the subject and the background.  Your camera’s built-in flash may be strong enough to pull off this trick, but it often helps to have a more powerful flash unit with you.  There are some other reasons why you may not want to use flash as a main source of light on your subject, so this method should be used sparingly.  A reflector can be used instead of flash to reflect some of the sun’s light onto the front of your subject.

For this photo shoot with a musician friend, I shot into the light so she wouldn’t have to squint into the sun and also so that we’d have a beautiful rim light from the sun around her hair.  To pull this off, I used manual mode and selected the proper exposure for her face.  I employed a reflector to bounce some sunlight back onto her face and trumpet.  [Client image not for sale.]

Similar methods can be used for other challenging lighting conditions besides backlighting.  If the subject is a brighter or darker color than the “neutral gray” your camera’s meter uses for a standard, then you need to dial in more or less exposure as appropriate.  My black cat Dragonfly, for example, requires an especially dark exposure to override the meter from thinking he’s a gray cat and choosing too bright an exposure.  Similarly, a white polar bear will need additional exposure to stop the meter from underexposing what it assumes to be a gray bear.

When photographing a black subject, reduce the exposure to compensate for the light meter’s mistaken assumption that the subject is a neutral gray color.  Buy this photo

Whatever method you use to choose your exposure, be sure to take a look at the resulting image using your camera’s monitor.  Does the main subject appear to be properly exposed, or is it still too dark or perhaps too bright?  If your camera offers a histogram display, learn how it works and use it to check your exposure in tricky lighting conditions.  I’ll write a future post specifically about the histogram, as it is a very useful and often overlooked feature.

With some attention to the exposure of your images and use of some of the techniques described here, you can achieve a correctly exposed image nearly all of the time.  After mastering the essentials of exposure, you will have more keepers and fewer images in the virtual trash can, and you can even begin to break the rules for artistic effect.

Want to see more posts on photographic techniques?  You can find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

What lighting situations do you find the trickiest?  What techniques do you use to ensure properly exposed images?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box.

Prime Time [Encore Publication]: Why a prime lens is often better than a zoom

Most photographers make most of their images using a zoom lens.  Aside from smartphone cameras, which typically feature a fixed focal-length lens, nearly every camera today comes with a zoom lens attached.  Most point-and-shoot and compact cameras do not have interchangeable lenses, so the zoom lens that comes with the camera is the only choice, while most mirrorless and DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses.  That means these more advanced cameras offer the choice of using a broad range of different lenses, including both zoom and prime (fixed focal-length) lenses.  While many photographers own one or several prime lenses, from my observation the vast majority shoot nearly all of their images using one of their zoom lenses instead.  In today’s post, I make the case for using prime lenses in many, or even most, shooting situations.

This portrait of a Delhi girl outside India’s largest mosque is lovely and effective, but because I didn’t have time to change lenses and was forced to use my slower walkaround zoom lens, the depth-of-field is quite deep, making for a somewhat distracting background.  Buy this photo

Zoom lenses have one clear advantage over prime lenses: they offer a range of focal lengths, which helps the photographer compose the image without having to walk closer to or farther away from the subject.  But even here I would argue that in most cases it aids creativity to “zoom with the feet,” or walk around to compose the best shot.  Even when this isn’t possible, a high-resolution digital image can easily be cropped in post-processing to achieve the composition the photographer had in mind.

But prime lenses have many advantages over zoom lenses.  First, they are nearly always sharper and generally higher quality than zooms, because they don’t require extra internal glass elements to enable the zooming.  While zoom lenses have improved in optical quality over recent years, it remains the case that prime lenses offer a quality advantage.  Second, prime lenses are typically smaller and lighter than zooms.  This is a blessing especially to travel photographers.  Third, primes are less expensive than zooms of similar optical and build quality.  That means you can buy two or three different prime lenses for the price of one zoom lens covering a similar range of focal lengths.  And fourth, primes are usually faster (i.e., offer a wider maximum aperture size) than zooms.  This last point is a big advantage for many types of shooting, because a wide aperture (small F-number) lets in more light, allowing use of faster shutter speeds and lower ISO settings in low-light conditions.  This is a real boon for nighttime and astro-photography.  A wide aperture also results in shallow depth-of-field, which emphasizes the main subject by softening the focus of the background.  The best lenses offer a pleasing “bokeh”, or pleasant blurring of the out-of-focus elements of the image.  This effect makes for extremely effective portraits as well as wildlife images, but is also useful for other types of photography.


This portrait, made with my current favorite lens, an 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens, offers very sharp focus on the subject’s face and pleasing bokeh, or soft blurring of the out-of-focus background.  It would not have been possible to make this portrait using a zoom lens because the maximum aperture would be too small to achieve the soft background effect.  Buy this photo

I shoot a lot of performing arts events (dance, music, theater), which typically take place indoors where the light is very dim and frequently feature fast-moving action requiring a fast shutter speed.  Using a prime lens allows me to shoot at an action-freezing shutter speed without having to use extremely high ISO settings that introduce noise into the images.  And again, the pleasantly blurred backgrounds help set off the very sharp main subject for a striking overall effect.

I captured this image of a samba dancer at a dress rehearsal under very low-light conditions.  Using my 85mm f/1.8 prime portrait lens, I was able to freeze the motion using a fast shutter speed, keep the ISO at a reasonable level to avoid noise, and render a nice soft background.  Buy this photo

I would estimate that most enthusiast and professional photographers shoot about 80% of their images using zoom lenses.  My own usage pattern is the opposite, that is, I shoot about 80% of my images using prime lenses.  For some purposes, a zoom lens is still required, but it’s surprising how often we can achieve better results using a prime.  Prime lenses are smaller, lighter, less expensive, higher quality, and faster than zoom lenses.  I encourage you to dig out your prime lenses if you have a few, or borrow, rent, or buy one or two (remember, they are much less expensive than comparable zoom lenses) and try shooting with them exclusively, or at least much of the time, for a week or two.  Compare your images made with the primes vs. the ones made with zooms and come to your own conclusions.  If you’re like me, you’ll find that a prime lens is the right tool for most photographic jobs.

Here are my three favorite prime lenses, a “normal” lens, a medium telephoto or “portrait” lens, and a wide-angle lens:

If you pack only one prime lens, it most likely will be a “normal” lens, that is one with a focal length of about 50mm for a full-frame camera or about 35mm for a crop-sensor camera.  I carry the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens.  This is the one I use in very low-light situations or to get a really shallow depth-of-field.

I think my current favorite lens of all (including primes and zooms) is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh”, or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

A wide-angle prime lens can be useful for landscapes, architecture and interiors, and astro-photography, among other purposes.  I like the Nikon 24mm f/1.8.

What are your preferences regarding use of prime vs. zoom lenses, and why?  Please share your experiences in the comments box.

Want to read other posts about gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

 

Bracketing: Hedging Your Bets [Encore Publication]: In challenging shooting conditions, exposure bracketing is a great insurance policy

In the old film days of photography, it would be days or even weeks after shooting before we could see the results.  I would routinely use a procedure called “bracketing” to make a series of shots, each at a slightly different exposure, to increase the odds that one would come out decently exposed.  Even today, when digital photography allows us to see the results immediately, there are two good reasons to employ the exposure bracketing technique: 1) it can be hard to assess on a small LCD screen in bright daylight and while in the excitement of shooting whether the exposure is really correct, and 2) when the contrast between the brighter and dimmer parts of the scene is high we may want to stitch several different exposures together using software to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image later.

Tricky subjects, like this tiny Svalbard reindeer against a glacier background, benefit greatly from exposure bracketing.  From a series of 5, 7, or even 9 images shot at slightly different exposures, you can choose the one with the correct exposure for the conditions.  Buy this photo

So there are still good reasons to use exposure bracketing, and fortunately, it is quite easy to employ this technique.  Here’s how.

If possible, mount your camera on a tripod when using bracketing so it won’t move between exposures.  Then you can combine several of the exposures into an HDR image later if desired.

If your camera has a bracketing button or menu item, use it to specify how many shots you want to take (I usually shoot 5 or 7 different exposures when bracketing) and how much you want to vary the exposure between each shot and the next (often I choose a 1-stop difference).  If your camera lacks this feature, you can still use bracketing by manually adjusting the exposure between each shot and the next; just use your camera’s exposure compensation control to dial in first -2 stops, then -1 stop, then 0, then +1 stop, and finally +2 stops.

I like to set my camera for continuous shooting while bracketing.  That way, I just hold down the remote shutter release and the camera shoots all 5 or 7 exposures in rapid succession.  But it’s fine to shoot each frame individually in single release mode, if you prefer.

There are some subtleties to think about when employing exposure bracketing.  Some cameras let you choose whether to vary the aperture, the shutter speed, or the ISO setting, while holding the other two settings constant.  In most cases, I prefer to vary the shutter speed and hold the aperture and ISO settings constant, because changing the aperture affects the images’s depth-of-field, and changing the ISO setting can affect the noise in the image.

Later, during post-processing, you review the images and choose the one that is properly exposed.  Or if the scene is very high contrast, you can use photo editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop to stitch several frames in your series together into an HDR image, which ensures good exposure from the brightest to the darkest tones in your photo.

Several exposures were shot using bracketing and then combined in Photoshop to create this HDR  image.  All tones from the darkest shadows on the mountain walls to the brightest highlights on the icebergs and lake are properly exposed in the final image.  Buy this photo

Have you used exposure bracketing techniques?  What are your best practices?  Do you use this process mostly for selecting the best exposure or for creating HDR images?  Please share your thoughts here.

Are you interested in learning new travel photography techniques?  Follow this link to see all the posts on techniques: Posts on Techniques.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” ~Maya Angelou [Encore Publication]: How to make great portraits while traveling or near home

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” ~Maya Angelou

I have long believed that travel equates to growth; that we cannot know our place in the world until we have experienced the lives of people in many different places.  Of all the joys of travel photography, to me the greatest is having the chance to meet people from very different backgrounds, to get to know them for a few minutes or for much longer, and to collaborate with them to make memorable images.

A recurring theme in this forum will be how to use our cameras as a bridge to learn about and to share insights into other cultures.  But the emphasis of this particular post is on the technical elements of creating portraits.  These techniques apply as well to shooting portraits across the street from our home as to making great people images halfway around the world.

Most portraits that we see published in magazines or photography books were made in the studio, where the photographer has complete control over the lighting and background, and often is working with a professional model.  But when we’re traveling, there’s often only a moment after getting to know a person and receiving their permission to photograph them, during which to set up our gear and shoot.  We have to live with whatever lighting is available and often must make do with a cluttered background.  To make this portrait of a woman enjoying a coffee break at a carpet-weaving collective in Turkey, I wanted to give the image a soft, flattering look and to bring out the rich, saturated colors of her clothing.  I chose a smaller than usual aperture to provide greater depth-of-field, so that the old house itself became part of the environment.  To accommodate the soft and dim natural indoor lighting, I used a higher ISO setting and a slower shutter speed.

Turkey This portrait set in a weaving collective in Turkey evokes a sense of place and a mood of quiet repose.  Buy this photo 

While trekking in Nepal, we stopped to rest at a teahouse where these two sisters were also taking a break along their journey.  I wished them “Namaste,” or well wishes, and they responded with a traditional hand gesture of greeting.  This image was made long before the digital era on a film camera with a normal lens and natural lighting only (had I had a flash unit handy, it would have helped to bring out the girls’ hair against the dark background).  I love the warmth of the girls’ expressions and the simple but bright colors of their dresses set off against the black background of the teahouse’s interior.

NepalA friendly welcome from these two young sisters at a rural teahouse in Nepal.  Buy this photo

Sometimes we want to tell the viewer more about our subject than what is possible in a simple close-up portrait.  An environmental portrait allows us to include more than just the subject by zooming out and bringing in other elements.  I photographed this maker of traditional Turkish instruments in his workshop while he tested a nearly-completed Bağlama, surrounded by other partially made instruments.  To my eye, the resulting portrait is more compelling than a close-up because it shows the subject in his environment.  To make this portrait, I used a wider focal-length and a narrower aperture so as to have more of the environmental elements in the frame and in focus.

TurkeyAn environmental portrait of a maker of traditional Turkish musical instruments.  Buy this photo

A portrait doesn’t have to portray a stock-still person posing for the camera.  Some of my favorite portraits evoke a strong sense of motion.  I made this portrait of a samba dancer during the Carnaval San Francisco annual parade by getting in close and shooting with a medium-length telephoto lens set to a small aperture to soften the background.  I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the action (although sometimes a slower shutter speed can be used to create a nice blurred effect).  In post-processing, I cropped the image to further isolate the dancer and emphasize the grace of the motion.

USA This dancer in a Brazilian Samba krewe was captured in a tight composition that was further cropped in post-processing to give a strong sense of motion.  Buy this photo

Keep an eye on the total composition when framing a portrait.  It’s more than just a matter of framing the subject within the image: other considerations include the background and the overall flow of the viewer’s eye across the image.  In this portrait of the proprietor of Maria’s Cafe in rural Cuba, I composed the image to use the brightly colored door, balcony, staircase, and tree to frame the subject herself.

CubaComposing a portrait involves thinking about the background and the viewer’s overall experience in looking across the image.  Buy this photo

A really good portrait should tell a story about the subject.  Here, Cuban tobacco farmer Benito relaxes in his drying barn with a cigar he just rolled from his tobacco harvest.  I got in close and used the natural light of his cigar lighter and the diffused sunlight within the barn, with no flash added.

CubaThis portrait of a Cuban tobacco farmer tells a story about who he is and what he does.  Buy this photo  

Consider the angle from which you shoot a portrait, as it has a strong influence on the emotional response of the viewer.  Most of the time we want to shoot a head shot or head-and-shoulders shot from a height midway between the top and bottom of the image, but to make this portrait of sisters on the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania, I chose to shoot from slightly above.  It’s a fine line between giving a sense of vulnerability and causing the image to seem condescending, but I like this photo in part because I feel the unusual vantage point evokes a strong sense of emotion.

TanzaniaAn unusual shooting angle can enhance a portrait, but be careful not to overdo this effect.  Buy this photo

Another rule meant to be broken is freezing the action of a portrait’s subject.  During a fitness photoshoot with my friend Crystal, I shot mostly with a fast shutter speed to freeze her while she worked out.  But for this image, we wanted a blurred effect to create a sense of her forward motion while running, so I used a slower shutter speed.

A slower shutter speed can be used to give more sense of motion to a rapidly moving subject.  Buy this photo

Sometimes a perspective change can work wonders for a portrait.  In this image of the chief of a remote village in Swaziland, I got down low and shot with a wide-angle lens to portray her in the context of the hut behind her and the gourds she holds in her hands.  A wide view in a portrait can lead to less-flattering likenesses, so this effect should be used sparingly.

SwazilandA wide-angle lens and unusual perspective shooting from low to the ground lend this portrait of a Swaziland village leader a sense of connection to the place.  Buy this photo

A note on gear: My go-to portrait lens is the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

Which of your portraits do you find most memorable, and why?  How did you create them?  Please share your thoughts here.

Please read this post for my essential tips on how to photograph people while traveling: Post on Travel Portraiture.

In the Nik of Time [Encore Publication]: Google’s Nik Collection offers leading-edge image editing tools for free

In 2012, Nik Software, a small company known for their image processing tools that emulated the look and feel of using old film, was quietly acquired by a somewhat larger company known as Google.  This past spring, Google announced they were making the entire suite of Nik tools available for free to all users.  I’m just getting around to testing this suite of image editing software now, and from what I’ve seen so far its capabilities are leading-edge and would be well worth spending hundreds of dollars to obtain.  It doesn’t do everything, but what it does, it does better than tools such as Photoshop and Lightroom, each of which costs a good deal of money.  That Nik’s great capabilities are available for download completely gratis is a wonderful gift from the folks at Google, and I strongly recommend you give them a try.

It’s important to note that the Nik Collection of software tools is not intended to be standalone image processing software.  It consists of a set of plugins, each specialized for a different specific purpose, that must be accessed by a general-purpose image editing application such as Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture.  I use Lightroom for nearly all of my post-processing, so I used that application to access the Nik Collection.

Once you have your general image editing application installed, then you can download the Nik Collection modules for free at this site: https://www.google.com/nikcollection/.  When you are working in your application of choice, you will then have access to the various Nik Collection tools in the editing menus.  For example, when I select an image in Lightroom, I can access six of the seven Nik modules by pulling down the “Photo” menu and then pulling down the “Edit In” sub-menu.  One of the Nik modules, the HDR Efex tool, is accessed instead under the “File” and “Export with Preset” menu choices.

These are the seven Nik Collection modules included in the free download:

Analog Efex Pro

Explore the look and feel of classic cameras, films, and lenses.

Color Efex Pro

A comprehensive set of filters for color correction, retouching, and creative effects.

Silver Efex Pro

Master the art of black-and-white photography with darkroom-inspired controls.

Viveza

Selectively adjust the color and tonality of your images without complicated masks or selections.

HDR Efex Pro

From natural to artistic, explore the full potential of HDR photography.

Sharpener Pro

Bring out hidden details consistently with the professional’s choice for image sharpening.

Dfine

Improve your images with noise reduction tailored to your camera.

So far, I’ve played around with just three of these tools.
Silver Efex Pro did a very good job of converting my test images to monochrome.  I’m pretty good at using Lightroom’s tools to convert color images to black-and-white, but they take a lot of practice to master.  In Nik’s Silver Efex module I was able to make some good choices very quickly.  For those who want to fine-tune their black-and-white conversions, there are very good tools for detailed control over the process.
I used Nik’s Dfine module to attempt to reduce noise in a favorite shot of the Milky Way over Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome.  The results of my quick trial looked comparable to what I had done in Lightroom, but I suspect if I took the time to learn the Nik tool more thoroughly, I could end up with even better results.
Finally, I tested Nik’s HDR Efex Pro tool.  This little gem is a joy to use.  Just select the series of shots from which you want to build an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image, export them to HDR Efex, and click a couple of buttons to generate the base HRD image there.  My default image looked pretty good, but the Nik tool has a wide range of presets that allow you to generate different HDR effects with the click of a button.  I tried several of these presets until I found one that perfectly suited the scene.  A few more small tweaks using the detailed adjustment sliders, and I was ready to save the HDR image back into Lightroom.  In the past I have been very disappointed with Lightroom’s built-in HDR tools, and only slightly more satisfied with Photoshop’s HDR module, but the Nik HDR Efex Pro plugin does an amazing job.  It’s both easier to use and generates better results than the other HDR software I’ve used.  Specifically, the Nik tool does a much better job than the other tools at producing natural-looking colors and at removing the “ghosting” effects from when the underlying images are just a little bit different from one another.  Now I’m eager to find the time to go back to some of my favorite HDR images and rebuild them using the Nik software!
For comparison, here is a favorite HDR image of mine, first shown after processing in Photoshop’s HDR tools and then shown after processing in Nik’s HDR Efex Pro tools.
lrwm-lowres-5884This HDR image of Lago Grey with its glacier and the peaks of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile was processed using Photoshop’s HDR tools.  The colors appear unnaturally saturated and parts of the image (especially the tops of the mountains and the brush in the foreground) show some ghosting effects.
lrwm-lowres-5880-5884-hdrnikThis version was processed using the Nik Collection’s HDR Efex Pro tools.  The colors look much more natural and all parts of the image appear sharp and free from ghosting.
I am looking forward to revisiting many of my favorite images and reprocessing them using the Nik Collection’s tools.  I highly recommend this versatile, easy-to-use, and powerful suite of image editing modules.  And the price can’t be beat.
Have you used the Nik Collection for your own photography?  What do you like and dislike?  Please share your thoughts here.
Want to read more posts about post-processing your images?  Find them all here: Posts on Post-Processing.

Prime Time: Why a prime lens is often better than a zoom

Most photographers make most of their images using a zoom lens.  Aside from smartphone cameras, which typically feature a fixed focal-length lens, nearly every camera today comes with a zoom lens attached.  Most point-and-shoot and compact cameras do not have interchangeable lenses, so the zoom lens that comes with the camera is the only choice, while most mirrorless and DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses.  That means these more advanced cameras offer the choice of using a broad range of different lenses, including both zoom and prime (fixed focal-length) lenses.  While many photographers own one or several prime lenses, from my observation the vast majority shoot nearly all of their images using one of their zoom lenses instead.  In today’s post, I make the case for using prime lenses in many, or even most, shooting situations.

This portrait of a Delhi girl outside India’s largest mosque is lovely and effective, but because I didn’t have time to change lenses and was forced to use my slower walkaround zoom lens, the depth-of-field is quite deep, making for a somewhat distracting background.  Buy this photo

Zoom lenses have one clear advantage over prime lenses: they offer a range of focal lengths, which helps the photographer compose the image without having to walk closer to or farther away from the subject.  But even here I would argue that in most cases it aids creativity to “zoom with the feet,” or walk around to compose the best shot.  Even when this isn’t possible, a high-resolution digital image can easily be cropped in post-processing to achieve the composition the photographer had in mind.

But prime lenses have many advantages over zoom lenses.  First, they are nearly always sharper and generally higher quality than zooms, because they don’t require extra internal glass elements to enable the zooming.  While zoom lenses have improved in optical quality over recent years, it remains the case that prime lenses offer a quality advantage.  Second, prime lenses are typically smaller and lighter than zooms.  This is a blessing especially to travel photographers.  Third, primes are less expensive than zooms of similar optical and build quality.  That means you can buy two or three different prime lenses for the price of one zoom lens covering a similar range of focal lengths.  And fourth, primes are usually faster (i.e., offer a wider maximum aperture size) than zooms.  This last point is a big advantage for many types of shooting, because a wide aperture (small F-number) lets in more light, allowing use of faster shutter speeds and lower ISO settings in low-light conditions.  This is a real boon for nighttime and astro-photography.  A wide aperture also results in shallow depth-of-field, which emphasizes the main subject by softening the focus of the background.  The best lenses offer a pleasing “bokeh”, or pleasant blurring of the out-of-focus elements of the image.  This effect makes for extremely effective portraits as well as wildlife images, but is also useful for other types of photography.


This portrait, made with my current favorite lens, an 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens, offers very sharp focus on the subject’s face and pleasing bokeh, or soft blurring of the out-of-focus background.  It would not have been possible to make this portrait using a zoom lens because the maximum aperture would be too small to achieve the soft background effect.  Buy this photo

I shoot a lot of performing arts events (dance, music, theater), which typically take place indoors where the light is very dim and frequently feature fast-moving action requiring a fast shutter speed.  Using a prime lens allows me to shoot at an action-freezing shutter speed without having to use extremely high ISO settings that introduce noise into the images.  And again, the pleasantly blurred backgrounds help set off the very sharp main subject for a striking overall effect.

I captured this image of a samba dancer at a dress rehearsal under very low-light conditions.  Using my 85mm f/1.8 prime portrait lens, I was able to freeze the motion using a fast shutter speed, keep the ISO at a reasonable level to avoid noise, and render a nice soft background.  Buy this photo

I would estimate that most enthusiast and professional photographers shoot about 80% of their images using zoom lenses.  My own usage pattern is the opposite, that is, I shoot about 80% of my images using prime lenses.  For some purposes, a zoom lens is still required, but it’s surprising how often we can achieve better results using a prime.  Prime lenses are smaller, lighter, less expensive, higher quality, and faster than zoom lenses.  I encourage you to dig out your prime lenses if you have a few, or borrow, rent, or buy one or two (remember, they are much less expensive than comparable zoom lenses) and try shooting with them exclusively, or at least much of the time, for a week or two.  Compare your images made with the primes vs. the ones made with zooms and come to your own conclusions.  If you’re like me, you’ll find that a prime lens is the right tool for most photographic jobs.

Here are my three favorite prime lenses, a “normal” lens, a medium telephoto or “portrait” lens, and a wide-angle lens:

If you pack only one prime lens, it most likely will be a “normal” lens, that is one with a focal length of about 50mm for a full-frame camera or about 35mm for a crop-sensor camera.  I carry the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens.  This is the one I use in very low-light situations or to get a really shallow depth-of-field.

I think my current favorite lens of all (including primes and zooms) is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh”, or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

A wide-angle prime lens can be useful for landscapes, architecture and interiors, and astro-photography, among other purposes.  I like the Nikon 24mm f/1.8.

What are your preferences regarding use of prime vs. zoom lenses, and why?  Please share your experiences in the comments box.

Want to read other posts about gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

 

Bracketing: Hedging Your Bets [Encore Publication]: In challenging shooting conditions, exposure bracketing is a great insurance policy

In the old film days of photography, it would be days or even weeks after shooting before we could see the results.  I would routinely use a procedure called “bracketing” to make a series of shots, each at a slightly different exposure, to increase the odds that one would come out decently exposed.  Even today, when digital photography allows us to see the results immediately, there are two good reasons to employ the exposure bracketing technique: 1) it can be hard to assess on a small LCD screen in bright daylight and while in the excitement of shooting whether the exposure is really correct, and 2) when the contrast between the brighter and dimmer parts of the scene is high we may want to stitch several different exposures together using software to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image later.

Tricky subjects, like this tiny Svalbard reindeer against a glacier background, benefit greatly from exposure bracketing.  From a series of 5, 7, or even 9 images shot at slightly different exposures, you can choose the one with the correct exposure for the conditions.  Buy this photo

So there are still good reasons to use exposure bracketing, and fortunately, it is quite easy to employ this technique.  Here’s how.

If possible, mount your camera on a tripod when using bracketing so it won’t move between exposures.  Then you can combine several of the exposures into an HDR image later if desired.

If your camera has a bracketing button or menu item, use it to specify how many shots you want to take (I usually shoot 5 or 7 different exposures when bracketing) and how much you want to vary the exposure between each shot and the next (often I choose a 1-stop difference).  If your camera lacks this feature, you can still use bracketing by manually adjusting the exposure between each shot and the next; just use your camera’s exposure compensation control to dial in first -2 stops, then -1 stop, then 0, then +1 stop, and finally +2 stops.

I like to set my camera for continuous shooting while bracketing.  That way, I just hold down the remote shutter release and the camera shoots all 5 or 7 exposures in rapid succession.  But it’s fine to shoot each frame individually in single release mode, if you prefer.

There are some subtleties to think about when employing exposure bracketing.  Some cameras let you choose whether to vary the aperture, the shutter speed, or the ISO setting, while holding the other two settings constant.  In most cases, I prefer to vary the shutter speed and hold the aperture and ISO settings constant, because changing the aperture affects the images’s depth-of-field, and changing the ISO setting can affect the noise in the image.

Later, during post-processing, you review the images and choose the one that is properly exposed.  Or if the scene is very high contrast, you can use photo editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop to stitch several frames in your series together into an HDR image, which ensures good exposure from the brightest to the darkest tones in your photo.

Several exposures were shot using bracketing and then combined in Photoshop to create this HDR  image.  All tones from the darkest shadows on the mountain walls to the brightest highlights on the icebergs and lake are properly exposed in the final image.  Buy this photo

Have you used exposure bracketing techniques?  What are your best practices?  Do you use this process mostly for selecting the best exposure or for creating HDR images?  Please share your thoughts here.

Are you interested in learning new travel photography techniques?  Follow this link to see all the posts on techniques: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

In the Nik of Time [Encore Publication]: Google’s Nik Collection offers leading-edge image editing tools for free

In 2012, Nik Software, a small company known for their image processing tools that emulated the look and feel of using old film, was quietly acquired by a somewhat larger company known as Google.  This past spring, Google announced they were making the entire suite of Nik tools available for free to all users.  I’m just getting around to testing this suite of image editing software now, and from what I’ve seen so far its capabilities are leading-edge and would be well worth spending hundreds of dollars to obtain.  It doesn’t do everything, but what it does, it does better than tools such as Photoshop and Lightroom, each of which costs a good deal of money.  That Nik’s great capabilities are available for download completely gratis is a wonderful gift from the folks at Google, and I strongly recommend you give them a try.

It’s important to note that the Nik Collection of software tools is not intended to be standalone image processing software.  It consists of a set of plugins, each specialized for a different specific purpose, that must be accessed by a general-purpose image editing application such as Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture.  I use Lightroom for nearly all of my post-processing, so I used that application to access the Nik Collection.

Once you have your general image editing application installed, then you can download the Nik Collection modules for free at this site: https://www.google.com/nikcollection/.  When you are working in your application of choice, you will then the various Nik Collection tools in the editing menus.  For example, when I select an image in Lightroom, I can access six of the seven Nik modules by pulling down the “Photo” menu and then pulling down the “Edit In” sub-menu.  One of the Nik modules, the HDR Efex tool, is accessed instead under the “File” and “Export with Preset” menu choices.

These are the seven Nik Collection modules included in the free download:

Analog Efex Pro

Explore the look and feel of classic cameras, films, and lenses.

Color Efex Pro

A comprehensive set of filters for color correction, retouching, and creative effects.

Silver Efex Pro

Master the art of black-and-white photography with darkroom-inspired controls.

Viveza

Selectively adjust the color and tonality of your images without complicated masks or selections.

HDR Efex Pro

From natural to artistic, explore the full potential of HDR photography.

Sharpener Pro

Bring out hidden details consistently with the professional’s choice for image sharpening.

Dfine

Improve your images with noise reduction tailored to your camera.

So far, I’ve played around with just three of these tools.
Silver Efex Pro did a very good job of converting my test images to monochrome.  I’m pretty good at using Lightroom’s tools to convert color images to black-and-white, but they take a lot of practice to master.  In Nik’s Silver Efex module I was able to make some good choices very quickly.  For those who want to fine-tune their black-and-white conversions, there are very good tools for detailed control over the process.
I used Nik’s Dfine module to attempt to reduce noise in a favorite shot of the Milky Way over Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome.  The results of my quick trial looked comparable to what I had done in Lightroom, but I suspect if I took the time to learn the Nik tool more thoroughly, I could end up with even better results.
Finally, I tested Nik’s HDR Efex Pro tool.  This little gem is a joy to use.  Just select the series of shots from which you want to build an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image, export them to HDR Efex, and click a couple of buttons to generate the base HRD image there.  My default image looked pretty good, but the Nik tool has a wide range of presets that allow you to generate different HDR effects with the click of a button.  I tried several of these presets until I found one that perfectly suited the scene.  A few more small tweaks using the detailed adjustment sliders, and I was ready to save the HDR image back into Lightroom.  In the past I have been very disappointed with Lightroom’s built-in HDR tools, and only slightly more satisfied with Photoshop’s HDR module, but the Nik HDR Efex Pro plugin does an amazing job.  It’s both easier to use and generates better results than the other HDR software I’ve used.  Specifically, the Nik tool does a much better job than the other tools at producing natural-looking colors and at removing the “ghosting” effects from when the underlying images are just a little bit different from one another.  Now I’m eager to find the time to go back to some of my favorite HDR images and rebuild them using the Nik software!
For comparison, here is a favorite HDR image of mine, first shown after processing in Photoshop’s HDR tools and then shown after processing in Nik’s HDR Efex Pro tools.
lrwm-lowres-5884This HDR image of Lago Grey with its glacier and the peaks of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile was processed using Photoshop’s HDR tools.  The colors appear unnaturally saturated and parts of the image (especially the tops of the mountains and the brush in the foreground) show some ghosting effects.
lrwm-lowres-5880-5884-hdrnikThis version was processed using the Nik Collection’s HDR Efex Pro tools.  The colors look much more natural and all parts of the image appear sharp and free from ghosting.
I am looking forward to revisiting many of my favorite images and reprocessing them using the Nik Collection’s tools.  I highly recommend this versatile, easy-to-use, and powerful suite of image editing modules.  And the price can’t be beat.
Have you used the Nik Collection for your own photography?  What do you like and dislike?  Please share your thoughts here.
Want to read more posts about post-processing your images?  Find them all here: Posts on Post-Processing.

Decent Exposure [Encore Publication]: Mastering exposure is key to getting great images

Of all the primary elements a photographer controls–composition, focus, the moment the shutter is released, and of course the choice of the subject–none is more critical to making a great image than setting a proper exposure.  Some corrections to a poorly exposed image can be made in post-processing, and there are occasionally good artistic reasons to override the norms of exposure in order to evoke a certain mood in an image by making it darker or brighter than usual, but before we can effectively make these exceptional choices it is necessary to learn the basics of setting an appropriate exposure.

Let’s begin by defining exposure and the elements that comprise it.  Simply put, exposure refers to the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor and therefore how light or dark the resulting image will appear.  Four components together determine the exposure: 1) the brightness of the light reflecting off the subject and reaching the front of the lens, 2) the aperture setting on the lens (how wide or narrow is the opening of the lens), 3) the shutter speed setting (how long is the camera’s shutter open to allow light to strike the sensor), and 4) the sensitivity setting of the camera’s sensor.  We don’t always have control over the first component, but the other three are within our control using our camera’s settings.

Many photographers simply set their camera on Auto mode and let the camera’s built-in meter make its best guess as to how the image should be exposed.  That method can work well under certain conditions, but it is highly prone to errors.  For example, if your main subject is strongly backlit, the camera’s meter will expose for the average brightness in the scene and will underexpose the subject.  This is why so often we see underexposed photos of people standing outside in bright sunlight.

Although I compensated for the strong backlighting in this image of a Tibetan family enjoying a midday picnic, their faces are still quite shadowy, indicating a bit brighter exposure would have been better still.  Buy this photo

Fortunately, there are several easy methods to achieve a correct exposure even under challenging lighting conditions.  Here are a few that I use frequently:

  1. Set the camera’s metering mode to Spot Metering: By default most cameras’ metering systems use a sophisticated pattern-matching algorithm that measures how bright or dark each area of the image is and makes its best guess about a workable exposure based on similar scenes in the camera’s database.  Most cameras allow you to select a simpler metering mode called Spot Metering, that just measures the light at the central point in the image or another point that you select.  If you choose Spot Metering and select the measuring point to be right where your main subject is, you should get just the right exposure.
  2. Dial in some exposure compensation: Most cameras let you override the meter’s exposure setting by dialing in a compensation setting to lighten or darken the image.  If your subject is backlit, you will likely want to increase the exposure by one to two stops (each “stop” of additional exposure represents a doubling of the amount of light reaching the sensor).  The camera’s display should show something like “+1 EV” to alert you that you’ve dialed in 1 extra stop of exposure, and the number changes as you change the compensation setting.  Just be sure to set the exposure compensation back to zero when you’re done using it.
  3. Go fully manual: To gain complete control over your camera’s exposure settings, choose the meter’s Manual mode.  Then you can change all three exposure elements (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) until the image appears properly exposed when you review it on your camera’s display.
  4. Use flash to increase the lighting on your main subject: One good way to achieve proper exposure with a backlit subject is to increase lighting on the subject itself, so that there is no longer such a difference in brightness between the subject and the background.  Your camera’s built-in flash may be strong enough to pull off this trick, but it often helps to have a more powerful flash unit with you.  There are some other reasons why you may not want to use flash as a main source of light on your subject, so this method should be used sparingly.  A reflector can be used instead of flash to reflect some of the sun’s light onto the front of your subject.

For this photo shoot with a musician friend, I shot into the light so she wouldn’t have to squint into the sun and also so that we’d have a beautiful rim light from the sun around her hair.  To pull this off, I used manual mode and selected the proper exposure for her face.  I employed a reflector to bounce some sunlight back onto her face and trumpet.  [Client image not for sale.]

Similar methods can be used for other challenging lighting conditions besides backlighting.  If the subject is a brighter or darker color than the “neutral gray” your camera’s meter uses for a standard, then you need to dial in more or less exposure as appropriate.  My black cat Dragonfly, for example, requires an especially dark exposure to override the meter from thinking he’s a gray cat and choosing too bright an exposure.  Similarly, a white polar bear will need additional exposure to stop the meter from underexposing what it assumes to be a gray bear.

When photographing a black subject, reduce the exposure to compensate for the light meter’s mistaken assumption that the subject is a neutral gray color.  Buy this photo

Whatever method you use to choose your exposure, be sure to take a look at the resulting image using your camera’s monitor.  Does the main subject appear to be properly exposed, or is it still too dark or perhaps too bright?  If your camera offers a histogram display, learn how it works and use it to check your exposure in tricky lighting conditions.  I’ll write a future post specifically about the histogram, as it is a very useful and often overlooked feature.

With some attention to the exposure of your images and use of some of the techniques described here, you can achieve a correctly exposed image nearly all of the time.  After mastering the essentials of exposure, you will have more keepers and fewer images in the virtual trash can, and you can even begin to break the rules for artistic effect.

Want to see more posts on photographic techniques?  You can find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

What lighting situations do you find the trickiest?  What techniques do you use to ensure properly exposed images?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box.

In the Nik of Time [Encore Publication]: Google’s Nik Collection offers leading-edge image editing tools for free

In 2012, Nik Software, a small company known for their image processing tools that emulated the look and feel of using old film, was quietly acquired by a somewhat larger company known as Google.  This past spring, Google announced they were making the entire suite of Nik tools available for free to all users.  I’m just getting around to testing this suite of image editing software now, and from what I’ve seen so far its capabilities are leading-edge and would be well worth spending hundreds of dollars to obtain.  It doesn’t do everything, but what it does, it does better than tools such as Photoshop and Lightroom, each of which costs a good deal of money.  That Nik’s great capabilities are available for download completely gratis is a wonderful gift from the folks at Google, and I strongly recommend you give them a try.

It’s important to note that the Nik Collection of software tools is not intended to be standalone image processing software.  It consists of a set of plugins, each specialized for a different specific purpose, that must be accessed by a general-purpose image editing application such as Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture.  I use Lightroom for nearly all of my post-processing, so I used that application to access the Nik Collection.

Once you have your general image editing application installed, then you can download the Nik Collection modules for free at this site: https://www.google.com/nikcollection/.  When you are working in your application of choice, you will then the various Nik Collection tools in the editing menus.  For example, when I select an image in Lightroom, I can access six of the seven Nik modules by pulling down the “Photo” menu and then pulling down the “Edit In” sub-menu.  One of the Nik modules, the HDR Efex tool, is accessed instead under the “File” and “Export with Preset” menu choices.

These are the seven Nik Collection modules included in the free download:

Analog Efex Pro

Explore the look and feel of classic cameras, films, and lenses.

Color Efex Pro

A comprehensive set of filters for color correction, retouching, and creative effects.

Silver Efex Pro

Master the art of black-and-white photography with darkroom-inspired controls.

Viveza

Selectively adjust the color and tonality of your images without complicated masks or selections.

HDR Efex Pro

From natural to artistic, explore the full potential of HDR photography.

Sharpener Pro

Bring out hidden details consistently with the professional’s choice for image sharpening.

Dfine

Improve your images with noise reduction tailored to your camera.

So far, I’ve played around with just three of these tools.
Silver Efex Pro did a very good job of converting my test images to monochrome.  I’m pretty good at using Lightroom’s tools to convert color images to black-and-white, but they take a lot of practice to master.  In Nik’s Silver Efex module I was able to make some good choices very quickly.  For those who want to fine-tune their black-and-white conversions, there are very good tools for detailed control over the process.
I used Nik’s Dfine module to attempt to reduce noise in a favorite shot of the Milky Way over Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome.  The results of my quick trial looked comparable to what I had done in Lightroom, but I suspect if I took the time to learn the Nik tool more thoroughly, I could end up with even better results.
Finally, I tested Nik’s HDR Efex Pro tool.  This little gem is a joy to use.  Just select the series of shots from which you want to build an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image, export them to HDR Efex, and click a couple of buttons to generate the base HRD image there.  My default image looked pretty good, but the Nik tool has a wide range of presets that allow you to generate different HDR effects with the click of a button.  I tried several of these presets until I found one that perfectly suited the scene.  A few more small tweaks using the detailed adjustment sliders, and I was ready to save the HDR image back into Lightroom.  In the past I have been very disappointed with Lightroom’s built-in HDR tools, and only slightly more satisfied with Photoshop’s HDR module, but the Nik HDR Efex Pro plugin does an amazing job.  It’s both easier to use and generates better results than the other HDR software I’ve used.  Specifically, the Nik tool does a much better job than the other tools at producing natural-looking colors and at removing the “ghosting” effects from when the underlying images are just a little bit different from one another.  Now I’m eager to find the time to go back to some of my favorite HDR images and rebuild them using the Nik software!
For comparison, here is a favorite HDR image of mine, first shown after processing in Photoshop’s HDR tools and then shown after processing in Nik’s HDR Efex Pro tools.
lrwm-lowres-5884This HDR image of Lago Grey with its glacier and the peaks of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile was processed using Photoshop’s HDR tools.  The colors appear unnaturally saturated and parts of the image (especially the tops of the mountains and the brush in the foreground) show some ghosting effects.
lrwm-lowres-5880-5884-hdrnikThis version was processed using the Nik Collection’s HDR Efex Pro tools.  The colors look much more natural and all parts of the image appear sharp and free from ghosting.
I am looking forward to revisiting many of my favorite images and reprocessing them using the Nik Collection’s tools.  I highly recommend this versatile, easy-to-use, and powerful suite of image editing modules.  And the price can’t be beat.
Have you used the Nik Collection for your own photography?  What do you like and dislike?  Please share your thoughts here.
Want to read more posts about post-processing your images?  Find them all here: Posts on Post-Processing.

Bracketing: Hedging Your Bets [Encore Publication]: In challenging shooting conditions, exposure bracketing is a great insurance policy

In the old film days of photography, it would be days or even weeks after shooting before we could see the results.  I would routinely use a procedure called “bracketing” to make a series of shots, each at a slightly different exposure, to increase the odds that one would come out decently exposed.  Even today, when digital photography allows us to see the results immediately, there are two good reasons to employ the exposure bracketing technique: 1) it can be hard to assess on a small LCD screen in bright daylight and while in the excitement of shooting whether the exposure is really correct, and 2) when the contrast between the brighter and dimmer parts of the scene is high we may want to stitch several different exposures together using software to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image later.

Tricky subjects, like this tiny Svalbard reindeer against a glacier background, benefit greatly from exposure bracketing.  From a series of 5, 7, or even 9 images shot at slightly different exposures, you can choose the one with the correct exposure for the conditions.  Buy this photo

So there are still good reasons to use exposure bracketing, and fortunately, it is quite easy to employ this technique.  Here’s how.

If possible, mount your camera on a tripod when using bracketing so it won’t move between exposures.  Then you can combine several of the exposures into an HDR image later if desired.

If your camera has a bracketing button or menu item, use it to specify how many shots you want to take (I usually shoot 5 or 7 different exposures when bracketing) and how much you want to vary the exposure between each shot and the next (often I choose a 1-stop difference).  If your camera lacks this feature, you can still use bracketing by manually adjusting the exposure between each shot and the next; just use your camera’s exposure compensation control to dial in first -2 stops, then -1 stop, then 0, then +1 stop, and finally +2 stops.

I like to set my camera for continuous shooting while bracketing.  That way, I just hold down the remote shutter release and the camera shoots all 5 or 7 exposures in rapid succession.  But it’s fine to shoot each frame individually in single release mode, if you prefer.

There are some subtleties to think about when employing exposure bracketing.  Some cameras let you choose whether to vary the aperture, the shutter speed, or the ISO setting, while holding the other two settings constant.  In most cases, I prefer to vary the shutter speed and hold the aperture and ISO settings constant, because changing the aperture affects the images’s depth-of-field, and changing the ISO setting can affect the noise in the image.

Later, during post-processing, you review the images and choose the one that is properly exposed.  Or if the scene is very high contrast, you can use photo editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop to stitch several frames in your series together into an HDR image, which ensures good exposure from the brightest to the darkest tones in your photo.

Several exposures were shot using bracketing and then combined in Photoshop to create this HDR  image.  All tones from the darkest shadows on the mountain walls to the brightest highlights on the icebergs and lake are properly exposed in the final image.  Buy this photo

Have you used exposure bracketing techniques?  What are your best practices?  Do you use this process mostly for selecting the best exposure or for creating HDR images?  Please share your thoughts here.

Are you interested in learning new travel photography techniques?  Follow this link to see all the posts on techniques: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

In the Nik of Time: Google’s Nik Collection offers leading-edge image editing tools for free

In 2012, Nik Software, a small company known for their image processing tools that emulated the look and feel of using old film, was quietly acquired by a somewhat larger company known as Google.  This past spring, Google announced they were making the entire suite of Nik tools available for free to all users.  I’m just getting around to testing this suite of image editing software now, and from what I’ve seen so far its capabilities are leading-edge and would be well worth spending hundreds of dollars to obtain.  It doesn’t do everything, but what it does, it does better than tools such as Photoshop and Lightroom, each of which costs a good deal of money.  That Nik’s great capabilities are available for download completely gratis is a wonderful gift from the folks at Google, and I strongly recommend you give them a try.

It’s important to note that the Nik Collection of software tools is not intended to be standalone image processing software.  It consists of a set of plugins, each specialized for a different specific purpose, that must be accessed by a general-purpose image editing application such as Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture.  I use Lightroom for nearly all of my post-processing, so I used that application to access the Nik Collection.

Once you have your general image editing application installed, then you can download the Nik Collection modules for free at this site: https://www.google.com/nikcollection/.  When you are working in your application of choice, you will then the various Nik Collection tools in the editing menus.  For example, when I select an image in Lightroom, I can access six of the seven Nik modules by pulling down the “Photo” menu and then pulling down the “Edit In” sub-menu.  One of the Nik modules, the HDR Efex tool, is accessed instead under the “File” and “Export with Preset” menu choices.

These are the seven Nik Collection modules included in the free download:

Analog Efex Pro

Explore the look and feel of classic cameras, films, and lenses.

Color Efex Pro

A comprehensive set of filters for color correction, retouching, and creative effects.

Silver Efex Pro

Master the art of black-and-white photography with darkroom-inspired controls.

Viveza

Selectively adjust the color and tonality of your images without complicated masks or selections.

HDR Efex Pro

From natural to artistic, explore the full potential of HDR photography.

Sharpener Pro

Bring out hidden details consistently with the professional’s choice for image sharpening.

Dfine

Improve your images with noise reduction tailored to your camera.

So far, I’ve played around with just three of these tools.
Silver Efex Pro did a very good job of converting my test images to monochrome.  I’m pretty good at using Lightroom’s tools to convert color images to black-and-white, but they take a lot of practice to master.  In Nik’s Silver Efex module I was able to make some good choices very quickly.  For those who want to fine-tune their black-and-white conversions, there are very good tools for detailed control over the process.
I used Nik’s Dfine module to attempt to reduce noise in a favorite shot of the Milky Way over Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome.  The results of my quick trial looked comparable to what I had done in Lightroom, but I suspect if I took the time to learn the Nik tool more thoroughly, I could end up with even better results.
Finally, I tested Nik’s HDR Efex Pro tool.  This little gem is a joy to use.  Just select the series of shots from which you want to build an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image, export them to HDR Efex, and click a couple of buttons to generate the base HRD image there.  My default image looked pretty good, but the Nik tool has a wide range of presets that allow you to generate different HDR effects with the click of a button.  I tried several of these presets until I found one that perfectly suited the scene.  A few more small tweaks using the detailed adjustment sliders, and I was ready to save the HDR image back into Lightroom.  In the past I have been very disappointed with Lightroom’s built-in HDR tools, and only slightly more satisfied with Photoshop’s HDR module, but the Nik HDR Efex Pro plugin does an amazing job.  It’s both easier to use and generates better results than the other HDR software I’ve used.  Specifically, the Nik tool does a much better job than the other tools at producing natural-looking colors and at removing the “ghosting” effects from when the underlying images are just a little bit different from one another.  Now I’m eager to find the time to go back to some of my favorite HDR images and rebuild them using the Nik software!
For comparison, here is a favorite HDR image of mine, first shown after processing in Photoshop’s HDR tools and then shown after processing in Nik’s HDR Efex Pro tools.
lrwm-lowres-5884This HDR image of Lago Grey with its glacier and the peaks of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile was processed using Photoshop’s HDR tools.  The colors appear unnaturally saturated and parts of the image (especially the tops of the mountains and the brush in the foreground) show some ghosting effects.
lrwm-lowres-5880-5884-hdrnikThis version was processed using the Nik Collection’s HDR Efex Pro tools.  The colors look much more natural and all parts of the image appear sharp and free from ghosting.
I am looking forward to revisiting many of my favorite images and reprocessing them using the Nik Collection’s tools.  I highly recommend this versatile, easy-to-use, and powerful suite of image editing modules.  And the price can’t be beat.
Have you used the Nik Collection for your own photography?  What do you like and dislike?  Please share your thoughts here.

Decent Exposure [Encore Publication]: Mastering exposure is key to getting great images

Of all the primary elements a photographer controls–composition, focus, the moment the shutter is released, and of course the choice of the subject–none is more critical to making a great image than setting a proper exposure.  Some corrections to a poorly exposed image can be made in post-processing, and there are occasionally good artistic reasons to override the norms of exposure in order to evoke a certain mood in an image by making it darker or brighter than usual, but before we can effectively make these exceptional choices it is necessary to learn the basics of setting an appropriate exposure.

Let’s begin by defining exposure and the elements that comprise it.  Simply put, exposure refers to the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor and therefore how light or dark the resulting image will appear.  Four components together determine the exposure: 1) the brightness of the light reflecting off the subject and reaching the front of the lens, 2) the aperture setting on the lens (how wide or narrow is the opening of the lens), 3) the shutter speed setting (how long is the camera’s shutter open to allow light to strike the sensor), and 4) the sensitivity setting of the camera’s sensor.  We don’t always have control over the first component, but the other three are within our control using our camera’s settings.

Many photographers simply set their camera on Auto mode and let the camera’s built-in meter make its best guess as to how the image should be exposed.  That method can work well under certain conditions, but it is highly prone to errors.  For example, if your main subject is strongly backlit, the camera’s meter will expose for the average brightness in the scene and will underexpose the subject.  This is why so often we see underexposed photos of people standing outside in bright sunlight.

Although I compensated for the strong backlighting in this image of a Tibetan family enjoying a midday picnic, their faces are still quite shadowy, indicating a bit brighter exposure would have been better still.  Buy this photo

Fortunately, there are several easy methods to achieve a correct exposure even under challenging lighting conditions.  Here are a few that I use frequently:

  1. Set the camera’s metering mode to Spot Metering: By default most cameras’ metering systems use a sophisticated pattern-matching algorithm that measures how bright or dark each area of the image is and makes its best guess about a workable exposure based on similar scenes in the camera’s database.  Most cameras allow you to select a simpler metering mode called Spot Metering, that just measures the light at the central point in the image or another point that you select.  If you choose Spot Metering and select the measuring point to be right where your main subject is, you should get just the right exposure.
  2. Dial in some exposure compensation: Most cameras let you override the meter’s exposure setting by dialing in a compensation setting to lighten or darken the image.  If your subject is backlit, you will likely want to increase the exposure by one to two stops (each “stop” of additional exposure represents a doubling of the amount of light reaching the sensor).  The camera’s display should show something like “+1 EV” to alert you that you’ve dialed in 1 extra stop of exposure, and the number changes as you change the compensation setting.  Just be sure to set the exposure compensation back to zero when you’re done using it.
  3. Go fully manual: To gain complete control over your camera’s exposure settings, choose the meter’s Manual mode.  Then you can change all three exposure elements (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) until the image appears properly exposed when you review it on your camera’s display.
  4. Use flash to increase the lighting on your main subject: One good way to achieve proper exposure with a backlit subject is to increase lighting on the subject itself, so that there is no longer such a difference in brightness between the subject and the background.  Your camera’s built-in flash may be strong enough to pull off this trick, but it often helps to have a more powerful flash unit with you.  There are some other reasons why you may not want to use flash as a main source of light on your subject, so this method should be used sparingly.  A reflector can be used instead of flash to reflect some of the sun’s light onto the front of your subject.

For this photo shoot with a musician friend, I shot into the light so she wouldn’t have to squint into the sun and also so that we’d have a beautiful rim light from the sun around her hair.  To pull this off, I used manual mode and selected the proper exposure for her face.  I employed a reflector to bounce some sunlight back onto her face and trumpet.  [Client image not for sale.]

Similar methods can be used for other challenging lighting conditions besides backlighting.  If the subject is a brighter or darker color than the “neutral gray” your camera’s meter uses for a standard, then you need to dial in more or less exposure as appropriate.  My black cat Dragonfly, for example, requires an especially dark exposure to override the meter from thinking he’s a gray cat and choosing too bright an exposure.  Similarly, a white polar bear will need additional exposure to stop the meter from underexposing what it assumes to be a gray bear.

When photographing a black subject, reduce the exposure to compensate for the light meter’s mistaken assumption that the subject is a neutral gray color.  Buy this photo

Whatever method you use to choose your exposure, be sure to take a look at the resulting image using your camera’s monitor.  Does the main subject appear to be properly exposed, or is it still too dark or perhaps too bright?  If your camera offers a histogram display, learn how it works and use it to check your exposure in tricky lighting conditions.  I’ll write a future post specifically about the histogram, as it is a very useful and often overlooked feature.

With some attention to the exposure of your images and use of some of the techniques described here, you can achieve a correctly exposed image nearly all of the time.  After mastering the essentials of exposure, you will have more keepers and fewer images in the virtual trash can, and you can even begin to break the rules for artistic effect.

Want to see more posts on photographic techniques?  You can find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

What lighting situations do you find the trickiest?  What techniques do you use to ensure properly exposed images?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box.

Decent Exposure: Mastering exposure is key to getting great images

Of all the primary elements a photographer controls–composition, focus, the moment the shutter is released, and of course the choice of the subject–none is more critical to making a great image than setting a proper exposure.  Some corrections to a poorly exposed image can be made in post-processing, and there are occasionally good artistic reasons to override the norms of exposure in order to evoke a certain mood in an image by making it darker or brighter than usual, but before we can effectively make these exceptional choices it is necessary to learn the basics of setting an appropriate exposure.

Let’s begin by defining exposure and the elements that comprise it.  Simply put, exposure refers to the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor and therefore how light or dark the resulting image will appear.  Four components together determine the exposure: 1) the brightness of the light reflecting off the subject and reaching the front of the lens, 2) the aperture setting on the lens (how wide or narrow is the opening of the lens), 3) the shutter speed setting (how long is the camera’s shutter open to allow light to strike the sensor), and 4) the sensitivity setting of the camera’s sensor.  We don’t always have control over the first component, but the other three are within our control using our camera’s settings.

Many photographers simply set their camera on Auto mode and let the camera’s built-in meter make its best guess as to how the image should be exposed.  That method can work well under certain conditions, but it is highly prone to errors.  For example, if your main subject is strongly backlit, the camera’s meter will expose for the average brightness in the scene and will underexpose the subject.  This is why so often we see underexposed photos of people standing outside in bright sunlight.

Although I compensated for the strong backlighting in this image of a Tibetan family enjoying a midday picnic, their faces are still quite shadowy, indicating a bit brighter exposure would have been better still.  Buy this photo

Fortunately, there are several easy methods to achieve a correct exposure even under challenging lighting conditions.  Here are a few that I use frequently:

  1. Set the camera’s metering mode to Spot Metering: By default most cameras’ metering systems use a sophisticated pattern-matching algorithm that measures how bright or dark each area of the image is and makes its best guess about a workable exposure based on similar scenes in the camera’s database.  Most cameras allow you to select a simpler metering mode called Spot Metering, that just measures the light at the central point in the image or another point that you select.  If you choose Spot Metering and select the measuring point to be right where your main subject is, you should get just the right exposure.
  2. Dial in some exposure compensation: Most cameras let you override the meter’s exposure setting by dialing in a compensation setting to lighten or darken the image.  If your subject is backlit, you will likely want to increase the exposure by one to two stops (each “stop” of additional exposure represents a doubling of the amount of light reaching the sensor).  The camera’s display should show something like “+1 EV” to alert you that you’ve dialed in 1 extra stop of exposure, and the number changes as you change the compensation setting.  Just be sure to set the exposure compensation back to zero when you’re done using it.
  3. Go fully manual: To gain complete control over your camera’s exposure settings, choose the meter’s Manual mode.  Then you can change all three exposure elements (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) until the image appears properly exposed when you review it on your camera’s display.
  4. Use flash to increase the lighting on your main subject: One good way to achieve proper exposure with a backlit subject is to increase lighting on the subject itself, so that there is no longer such a difference in brightness between the subject and the background.  Your camera’s built-in flash may be strong enough to pull off this trick, but it often helps to have a more powerful flash unit with you.  There are some other reasons why you may not want to use flash as a main source of light on your subject, so this method should be used sparingly.  A reflector can be used instead of flash to reflect some of the sun’s light onto the front of your subject.

For this photo shoot with a musician friend, I shot into the light so she wouldn’t have to squint into the sun and also so that we’d have a beautiful rim light from the sun around her hair.  To pull this off, I used manual mode and selected the proper exposure for her face.  I employed a reflector to bounce some sunlight back onto her face and trumpet.  [Client image not for sale.]

Similar methods can be used for other challenging lighting conditions besides backlighting.  If the subject is a brighter or darker color than the “neutral gray” your camera’s meter uses for a standard, then you need to dial in more or less exposure as appropriate.  My black cat Dragonfly, for example, requires an especially dark exposure to override the meter from thinking he’s a gray cat and choosing too bright an exposure.  Similarly, a white polar bear will need additional exposure to stop the meter from underexposing what it assumes to be a gray bear.

When photographing a black subject, reduce the exposure to compensate for the light meter’s mistaken assumption that the subject is a neutral gray color.  Buy this photo

Whatever method you use to choose your exposure, be sure to take a look at the resulting image using your camera’s monitor.  Does the main subject appear to be properly exposed, or is it still too dark or perhaps too bright?  If your camera offers a histogram display, learn how it works and use it to check your exposure in tricky lighting conditions.  I’ll write a future post specifically about the histogram, as it is a very useful and often overlooked feature.

With some attention to the exposure of your images and use of some of the techniques described here, you can achieve a correctly exposed image nearly all of the time.  After mastering the essentials of exposure, you will have more keepers and fewer images in the virtual trash can, and you can even begin to break the rules for artistic effect.

Want to see more posts on photographic techniques?  You can find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

What lighting situations do you find the trickiest?  What techniques do you use to ensure properly exposed images?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box.